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October 24, 2003

Tehachapi to Tonopah

On Monday, I launch myself south and east into the Mojave, my first trip there in two years. I've been imagining the first day's drive along I-5 for the last few days.

There's something hypnotic about that stretch of the drive, alternately entrancing and stultifying. If you need billboards and roadside attractions to keep you awake, you're better off taking Route 101. But if you don't mind a bit of that Grand Western Infinite, fence posts receding to the vanishing point on the horizon, I-5 will do just fine.

I usually see something along the way to the Bakersfield turnoff - I know, that's redundant - to invest with deep meaning and portent.

On my 34th birthday, nearly ten years ago, I was heading south along I-5 to meet Becky in Los Angeles. We were to go from there to Tucson, a week's worth of camping trip to celebrate the new year. By the time I reached Coalinga, the road rhythm had washed over me. I no longer felt the thrum of the concrete pads against the tires. I was flying, singing holes in the traffic, peering into the misty tule fog at the road signs a quarter-mile ahead.

Grinding up a long incline in the Temblor Range, I pulled up behind a tractor-trailer and slid over to pass on the left. It took a minute: he was going pretty fast. As I pulled up level with his back set of tires, a flock of doves burst from the fog to my left and zipped across in front of the truck, making it with a foot to spare.

And then came the laggard, a few feet behind, a slower dove of pure white, straining to keep up with her flock. I don't like the looks of this, I thought. The dove vanished in front of the airfoil atop the cab, and did not appear on the other side.

And we kept moving.

I wonder if she made it, and then just dropped down on the other side of the truck, I thought.

It seemed to take a very long time.

And then the white feathers. First one, then a handful, then a blizzard streamed back from the cab's passenger side. We crested the hill. Jake brakes gave their throaty roar.


I like to listen to South American music along the way. Salsa and Cumbia and the hundred thousand available Brazilian musical forms are fun, but I'll generally take Andean music over all of them. And not necessarily the kind played by alpaca-ponchoed panpipe players in Union Square and Santa Monica street corners, though I like that stuff well enough when I'm in the mood. No, I'm talking about the true traditional stuff, the huaynos and sanjuanitos and marineras that sound much the same as they did a thousand years ago, excepting of course the trumpets and accordions they're played on now.

Many of these musical forms, huayno and sanjuanito and bailecito especially, share a regionally characteristic structure. The songs often start upbeat, even sprightly, with bouncy major-key melodies that suddenly shift to the key's relative minor. Each phrase, each verse shifts mode from major to minor, giving despite the cheerful verses an air of pensive sadness to the whole genre. This structure conveys a deep sense of the cultures that invented the music: the basic fabric of the universe is one of longing and sorrow, onto which we applique small patches of brilliant joy.

I met this music in my twenties, most of which I spent weathering a relationship that had, upon starting, almost immediately gone sad for both people involved. Oh, the many miles I drove alone at night, listening to warbly melancholy Andean tapes, wondering if I was doomed to live this way for the rest of my life. On nights like those I would long for the woman I'd left in Buffalo, pretending to myself that she was sweetly asleep next to me, imagining as the flutes wound to their lovely, sad conclusion that we were headed together for some fine and undiscovered landscape.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 24, 2003 03:03 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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